Before I get started with this first painting, let me thank all of you who have signed up to receive these posts. I am truly humbled by your interest and encouraging remarks!
Okay, so here we go!
Fall has officially arrived. Slower summer schedules have slid into days packed with work and family commitments. Daily conversations revolve around fitting it all in: “I have a meeting at 5. Can you take Sophie to the dentist and then help her with her homework?” And what about Saturdays? Once a day off for many; now we fit phone calls with clients around cheers at our children’s games.
As we try to juggle it all, we may be tempted to think of work as a bad thing that came along after mankind’s fall into sin—sort of like mosquitoes and head colds.
Homer painted The Country School in 1871, not long after the Civil War.
He had been a wartime artist/correspondent, and like most Americans, wanted to put the tragedies of war behind him, get back to normal life, and look ahead to the future.
What better way than to show children involved in everyday activities such as picking blueberries or going to school? It was also at this time that Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott broke new ground for children’s books with Tom Sawyer and Little Women. Neither these stories nor Homer’s paintings are sentimental—they show things the way they were—barefeet, torn pants, and all. But they also show hope as children engage in activities that will prepare them for the future.
The first thing to do with a painting is to look at it and decide what it’s about. Paintings such as this, of everyday life, or genre art, often capture a moment in time. It’s as if Homer has us standing just inside the doorway so we can look around.
Let’s do that. At first glance, we see light streaming in the windows of a one-room school house onto the desks of girls on one side and boys on the other, with a teacher in the center.
Take your time. What’s with all that black in the center? The blackboard naturally draws our eyes. Because it frames the teacher, we notice this calm and serious young woman right away. Even though her dress is also black, her white apron and bright face make her stand out against the black. She is what is called the focal point of the painting, one of its most important parts.
But the teacher’s gaze quickly takes us to the boys, who are reading aloud. Many of us get nervous when we have to read aloud or speak in front of others, but these boys look relaxed and absorbed in their books.
Next, did the little girl’s red sweater catch your eye? Homer used red on purpose so your eyes don’t get “stuck” with the boys. He wants you to look around and notice other details. Artists often use bright colors in this way.
- Go on a scavenger hunt now to find and think about these items:
A straw hat; whose is it?
4 slates; these look a little like modern tablets, don’t they?
2 bunches of flowers; who probably picked these? Can you find the flower that has fallen on the floor?
2 ink bottles; imagine having to write without a computer or even ballpoint pens!
A Bible and a bell; There was a time when even public school teachers could read from the Bible in class!
2 barefoot boys? A little boy who is crying?
- Genre paintings are a slice of life and can spark stories. These questions may help:
Why do you think the little boy is crying? Has he done something wrong or is this his first year of school?
What is the little girl next to him thinking?
What are the clothing and hairstyles of the girls? the boys?
Why is the boy with the hole in his pants sitting so close to the teacher?
What are some ways in which this classroom is like today’s? Different?
What are some of the sounds you would hear in this classroom? Is it mostly quiet or loud?
The quiet, hardworking teacher and students in The Country School can help shine God’s light on our daily tasks. The Bible teaches that work isn’t something that only came along after mankind’s fall into sin. In fact, God started it all with His work of creation.
What did God do? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” Gen. 1:1, and “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished… and on the seventh day God finished His work that He had done….” Genesis 2:1-2a. Creation was hard work, needing creativity and wisdom. Psalm 139 says we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and so are all the creatures. Take just a few examples: penguins and pelicans—both have wings, but penguins “fly” under the water while pelicans skim above the waves. Or tigers and zebras—stripes help tigers blend in to stalk their prey, while stripes help zebras avoid becoming prey.
What is God still doing? God is continuing to work to uphold and care for us and His creation. In John 5:17 Jesus says, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” Hebrews 1:3 says, “…He [Christ] upholds the universe by the word of His power.”
What should we do? We are created in God’s image, and He created us to work to care for His creation. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” So work is not a result of the Fall, but something God has commanded us to do right from the beginning.
The tiredness we sometimes feel, the difficulty of the work, and the fact that it doesn’t always turn out as we want, are results of the Fall, but not work itself. See Gen. 3:17-19.
How does God help us with our work? In Ex. 35:30 Bezalel and Oholiab show us that God has created each of us with skills that we can use for Him. And though work is hard, God promises to help us. 1 Chron. 28:20.
How should we work? Col.3:23-24 says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
As important as a good attitude about work is, can our work save us? No, only through God’s grace to us in His Son, Jesus Christ, can we be saved. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Christ came to accomplish the work of salvation that we could not do. Use these questions and verses to think about this most important work and our response.
- What work did Christ come to do? John 17:1-4
What is our most important work? John 6:28-29
What are we created to do? Ephes. 2:10
What helps us to do good works? 2 Tim. 3:16-17
So though the Bible encourages us to work hard, despite the entanglements of sin and our imperfect results, it also teaches us that we can rest in our faith in Christ’s perfect and finished work for our salvation.
While The Country School is an oil painting, Homer was also a master of watercolors. This painting is in the St. Louis Art Museum, but you can see his paintings in museums all over the United States.